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Rooting Ourselves in Black History

Rooting Ourselves in Black History

When Dr. Carter G. Woodson first envisioned Negro History Week in 1926, he did not see it as a celebration of individual “Great Men of History.” He chose the month of February because many Black people in the U.S. had already been observing the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass for several years and he wanted to build on that momentum.

Dr. Woodson envisioned the dissemination of knowledge of a people, from their origins on the continent of Africa and her many civilizations, through chattel enslavement, past the Reconstruction Era and into the thick of the Harlem Renaissance.

Fifty years later, in 1976, Negro History Week was no more and Black History Month was officially recognized by the federal government. No matter that Woodson had complained of intellectual charlatans and the commercialization of this celebration as early as the 1930s; he remained steadfast in his original purpose.

During the Civil Rights Movement, organizers created Freedom Schools to supplement the segregated education that Black communities endured, at the same time they registered those communities to vote. Black History teach-ins and read-a-thons of banned authors continue in that tradition. 

The recent uproar and backlash against Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Black Studies in K-12 education takes place in a different context from that of Negro History Week. While Dr. Woodson’s efforts focused on Black people, today’s Black history education efforts seek a platform within American history, instead of alongside it. 

CRT – the theory that the United States is permanently racist because it was structurally designed this way from its beginnings – was never intended to be taught to K-12 students. The theory comes from legal scholars in law schools and colleges. The current bashing of CRT is a siren call to white supremacists who have been loud and effective. 

Over in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vision of a state that denies a place, as well as the state-level funding, for the truthful telling of U.S. history moves closer to legislative reality every day.

Books by Black scholars have been banned; teachers’ jobs are in jeopardy for using material deemed “controversial”; educators have been threatened with criminal prosecution; and the entire Black Studies curriculum are being rejected. The attacks on public education also include eliminating educational offerings on gender and sexuality during a climate of increasingly reduced and disappearing gender-affirming healthcare for transgender students. 

Fortunately, to quote a well-worn popular phrase, resistance is fertile.

In Florida and Alabama, students have walked out of classes and campuses in protest of these ideological maneuvers. Groups are organizing Black history teach-ins to supplement the education they are missing while on walkout. 

The point however,  in sounding the alarm about this, is that this will not stop with Black folks. 

It never does.

It never stops with Black folks. And it never stays in one state.

Nor will it.

If the battle to limit and eliminate the learning of the American legacy of racism and Black history in public spaces succeeds, Black folks are not the only ones who will lose.